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The Newbery Winner

Posted: 2012-03-12

The latest Newbery winner has an important message for teachers, one that will probably surprise them.

Because of lots of buzz about Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, I'd read it before it won the Newbery Award. Librarians and bloggers who write about books for young people had been raving about this books for months:

  • One of the best children's books I've read in years

  • It's an amazing book and deserves everything everything everything.

  • The award, considered the most prestigious in children's literature, was almost an afterthought by the time it was conferred by the American Library Association Jan. 18, 2010.

    The novel takes place on the Upper West Side in Manhattan in 1979, and tells the story of Miranda, a sixth grader whose best friend stops talking to her, who receives notes from an anonymous writer who seems to know about future events. Miranda's favorite book, one she keeps rereading, is Madeleine Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time.

    I just want to note two things about the book. The first is probably of no interest to anybody but me. Rebecca Stead said she deliberately set When You Reach Me in the location and time of her own childhood in New York. The apartment where Miranda lives is modeled on the apartment where Stead grew up and where her mother still lives, and Miranda's school is very similar to Public School 75 on West End Avenue and 96th Street, which Stead attended.

    Ohmygod, let's just say I love synchronicities.

    When Learning Magazine called me out of the blue two days before school started and asked if I'd leave the classroom and become the first staff writer they'd ever had, after I picked myself up off the floor, I told them I'd have to think about it. A few days later, I said yes, but I needed to give my district a few months notice. Then, the first thing Learning asked me to do was go to New York City and visit School 75, also known as the Emily Dickinson School (Many New York City Schools have prestigious names attached to them, but everybody still uses the numbers instead).

    I spent two days there--nosing around, talking to the principal, teachers, parents, children, custodians. I sat in on classrooms and on parent meetings. One thing that impressed me a lot was the willingness of the principal and the district superintendent to bend rules so that teachers could do what was good for kids.

    Periodically, while I was trying to take notes, I'd start crying--because I knew if I'd been teaching in a school half as good as P. S. 75, I would have turned down Learning's invitation to leave teaching.

    I wonder how P. S. 75 is faring these days.

    The second thing I want to mention about this book is more important. Everybody talks about the clever plot, the mystery, the puzzle, and so on. You can read about them in the many reviews available online. I just want to mention the heroine's desire to keep her reading private.

    A brilliant classmate of Miranda's notices she's reading (Actually rereading. She can't be persuaded to switch to another book.) A Wrinkle in Time and insists on talking about it. She responds briefly but then confesses to the reader:

    I was getting annoyed. The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book. It's like watching someone go through the box of private stuff that I keep under my bed.

    From my early teaching days until this moment I've worried that we rush to interrogation, never giving kids any private moments with their books. We ignore the silent appreciation, the chance to savor and think about the reading privately. We pull out the questions, the projects, the group discussion.

    Recently, Rebecca Stead made an appearance at a children's bookstore five miles from my house. I think I was the only adult unaccompanied by a child at her appearance. In the Q&A following her presentation, it was wonderful to see middle graders bombard her with questions. One boy asked, "Did your children help you with the book?"

    Rebecca gave a resounding, "No!"

    And echoing Miranda in the book, she explained that because of her own desire for privacy in her reading, she doesn't like to interrogate her children about their reading. So she didn't want to give them her manuscript and then question them about it. She explained, "As a kid I never liked to talk about the books I read. . . . The book existed only for me. I'm very emotional about books."

    Rebecca writes and speaks eloquently about the importance of private encounters with books. It's a message teachers need to hear.

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